Discover more from On the Arts
The Paradox of the Garden of Eden
An Interview with Professor David Fenner
The Creation of the World and the Expulsion from Paradise, Giovanni di Paolo
Announcement: I am excited to announce that On the Arts will now be featuring interviews with artists, academics, and people with interesting things to say about art and aesthetics.
David Fenner is Professor of Philosophy and Art at the University of North Florida. With Ethan Fenner, he is co-author of the forthcoming book The Art and Philosophy of the Garden (Oxford University Press).
In the post below, we discuss how the Garden of Eden became so influential on real-world gardens, while not truly being a garden. You can read the full paper, The Aesthetic Impact of the Garden of Eden, at Contemporary Aesthetics.
Join On the Arts as we explore fine art, architecture, fashion, film, and innumerable other forms of creativity. Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
On the Arts: In your paper, you discuss how the Garden of Eden has been extremely influential on the form of real gardens throughout history. Yet the Garden of Eden cannot be considered a “true” garden. Why is that?
David Fenner: Nature is always changing – sprouting, growing, flowering, fruiting, fading, dying, evolving – through the years, through the seasons, and sometimes even more frequently. While one can argue from some parts of the Genesis text that the Garden of Eden changed, too, if it was in a constant state of perfection – as the overall story, including the expulsion, suggests – then it could not have changed much if at all. So: not a true garden if we understand gardens to be continuous with, or incorporative of, nature.
OTA: Could you talk more about the dynamism of gardens, especially compared to other art forms?
DF: There are interesting parallels between gardens and dynamic art forms – there are articles devoted to understanding how gardens are like music, performance, literature, and film. But the key difference is in how these are experienced. If I go to a film, I will be in the theater for the start of the film and leave after the film is done. And if I go back to watch this same film, my experience of it – with minor variation that depends on how I’m feeling that day, who’s sitting around me, etc. – will be very much like it was on the first viewing.
An experience of a garden does not begin and end with the beginning and ending of the garden. We must frame the time we spend in that garden; we set the temporal boundaries of that experience, the garden doesn’t. Also, each time I visit a garden – especially if those visits are spaced out in time (so to speak) – the garden will be different, because of nature always being in a state of change.
Finally, if I am experiencing a film, what I see and what I hear are largely prescribed by the film – presumably by the director’s choices – but in a garden I choose what to pay attention to: a whole vista, one flower, one bed, a bird singing, the conversation of other visitors. So in all these ways, experiencing a garden is much more dependent on choices I make as the subject or “audience-member.”
Adam and Eve Driven From Paradise by James Tissot
OTA: So, why can’t the Garden of Eden be considered dynamic?
DF: It could be, but that would radically undercut the moral of the story, I think. Adam and Eve, in the story, disobey God and are expelled – specifically from their access to the Tree of Life. They are sent away to till the soil and sweat a lot. For the story to function optimally as a morality tale, the punishment must be felt to be severe. Moving from a garden that needs tending to an agricultural area that needs tending is not much of a stretch – one could argue that with modern agricultural processes, it takes more work to maintain a standard garden. But being kicked out of paradise is a big deal – but only if paradise really is paradise, a perfect place.
OTA: What role does the desert play in the idealization of the garden? Traditionally, a garden was an enclosed space, which seems similar to the idea of the Garden of Eden as a sacred space separated from the wider, impure world. And thus the expulsion from the garden is a bigger deal than if it were simply in a deciduous forest. Even the word paradise itself comes from this type of garden in ancient Persia, correct?
DF: Exactly. Gardens may have originally developed as enclosures to keep plants safe from desert winds. Nowadays we might think an enclosure necessary to keep out foraging animals and perhaps even foraging humans, but there’s also the sense that a garden should be felt to be a safe place – nature made safe – and a wall helps with that. The “enclosed garden” has a Latin name: hortus conclusus, and if you look up “garden” in any dictionary, it likely will reference enclosure.
DF: However, if we think about the Garden of Versailles – designed by André Le Nôtre – or any of the great British estate landscapes designed by Capability Brown – or even the standard American suburban front yard, obvious enclosure is the last thing that’s wanted. Capability Brown actually hid his walls – used to keep livestock from getting too close to the house – by burying them so, from the house, they were invisible. Every garden must have a boundary – because it is a place, and if the place is not the universe, then it has a boundary – but the hortus conclusus, of which the Garden of Eden is definitely a member, is no longer the norm.
OTA: Even though the Garden of Eden has served as inspiration for real gardens, you argue that it is better understood itself as a literary concept in a morality tale. Could you explain that?
DF: In both the Islamic and Jewish (and so also Christian) scriptures, the story of the creation of the world includes the placement of the first human/humans in an idealized natural state, and that perfect nature-focused place is a garden. It is expulsion from paradise that demonstrates not only the penalty of not obeying God, but also the result of exercise of free will and, in some traditions, the initiation of the depraved state of humans after the expulsion – what St. Augustine called original sin.
Whether Eden existed as a real place – and if you follow the description of its location in Genesis, it is very difficult to locate it as a real place – the story of Eden is a powerful morality tale about the relationship of humans to the divine, from the point of view of the Abrahamic monotheisms.
OTA: Whether the garden of Eden was truly a garden or not, it has influenced more than any other single garden. You call this Edenic culture. Could you give us a few examples of this influence; e.g., Islamic gardens?
DF: You got one of the best examples – the Persian garden (the most iconic type called a chahar bagh) evolved into the Islamic garden, an idealization of the Garden of Eden, with four channels of water dividing up garden quadrants, each quadrant usually focused on a central tree. The chahar bagh is a representation of paradise. It has been observed that every botanical garden is a version of the Garden of Eden as it attempts to capture the full range of diversity of plant life on the planet.
Layout of the Charbagh at the Tomb of Jahangir in Lahore, Pakistan.
OTA: In a broader sense, what do gardens represent – in Abrahamic religions and in other traditions?
DF: The garden is a symbol of the place where the physical world and the divine world meet. This is not just true of those places where Abrahamic monotheism took hold, but it is true of ancient Mesopotamia as we see in the Gilgamesh Epic, in the funerary practices and tombs of ancient Egypt, in the Homeric poems of ancient Greece, and in ancient China as gardens typically embodied mythological themes focused on the intersection of the divine and nature.
If the garden functions as a symbol of paradise, no matter the tradition, there must be something that is fundamentally stable about it. This is especially true for the Abrahamic monotheistic cultures where God must be always perfect in all respects. Yet gardens, as amalgams of nature and design, are subject to the many changes that all nature is subject to. It is through gardening practice that we work against the devolution of the garden back to a wild space. It is through our efforts in tending gardens that we actively seek to keep gardens as places of the immutable perfection that, at least in monotheism, we associate with the divine.
So the garden presents a paradox – a place of perfection, even transcendent perfection, but a place that is constantly working, because nature changes, against maintaining the order and design we, as gardeners, have imposed upon it and keep imposing upon it. I think it is this paradox that for many is the reason they become gardeners – it is an aesthetic form whose perfection is fleeting without the application of unwavering and constant creative activity.